Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Should Authors be Present at an Audiobook Recording? Guest Post by Anna Bentinck

I realised that I would probably feel uncomfortable about Julia being able to see my face as I worked.

I am an actress and in seven years of narrating audiobooks there had never been an author present at any time. Recently I have been asking to have all the lights turned off in the studio so I could turn the iPad screen up to its brightest, but this made my eyes blur after about seven hours so now the lights are on again. And this meant my face would be lit. So I placed myself rather carefully at the microphone on the day I invited Julia to the studio.

The Salt Stained Book is a wonderful adventure story with a strong theme of sailing and with references to Swallows and Amazons. I was very happy to be the narrator for the audio version as I knew the author Julia Jones, and had already read and loved the book. But I had not really anticipated how anxious I would be about her listening to me interpreting her work.

I had already phoned her to check up one or two things about how some of the characters might talk and so I asked her to come to the final recording session. I knew that I would have settled into the character’s voices by then and that hopefully she would like what I had done. I didn’t want her to ask for changes because this would have incurred expensive extra time in the studio. Profit margins are very tight in the audiobook world, costs are estimated by the minute; we work fast and carefully, and the producer/engineer is a highly skilled multitasking person.

Actors have different ways of preparing books. My way is to read all of it out loud, marking it up on the iPad and noting down separately any clues the author has actually written about the characters  such as “Jane’s strident tones rang out across the library” and any clues that I notice about them. For instance where they were born and how long they lived there (traces of Welsh), habit of patting her hair and touching her mouth (generally anxious). It is crucial to read it right to the very end as disaster can strike. Once in the last chapter of a thriller the main character - a mean, slimy type - was suddenly described as having a “throaty Scottish burr”. I had prepared him with a Londonish accent and a rather high nasal voice. So I had to go back to the beginning and speed through to all his speeches to rehearse them differently. I also check any difficult pronunciations with online pronouncing dictionaries and sometimes ring up tourist offices to get place names correct.

With Julia settled on the sofa behind the glass wall with the producer, I knew she could only see me side on and I could not see her face at all. I could not bear the thought that I might catch sight of her grimacing with dislike when I thought I was being terribly funny.

I do imagine my listeners sometimes, I think of them doing the washing up or driving somewhere but mostly I like to fall deeply into the book and in my mind I see the situation the author is describing.

I became very fond of the characters in The Salt Stained Book. Some were wonderfully individual like the Mother who could only sign (how to create a voice for a signer?), the obviously quite posh Granny who was strong and down to earth in coping with very straitened circumstances, and I loved doing the crooked social worker who could not hide her self-regard and the patronising female vicar who turned out to be a real trouper. The central character, Donny, is a 14 year old boy and beautifully drawn and I had worked out his voice after talking to Julia. His friends, three teenage girls, proved to be a bit more of a problem. All around the same age but all very different and two of them sisters. It was interesting to me that the character Julia had had the most difficulty writing was the one I found hardest to bring to life.

Sometimes the story was so sad I almost cried as I was recording it but I have learned not to do that, I don’t think it works for the listeners, but I hope I am able to put across the character’s distress and then maybe they will have a little weep, in the kitchen or the car.

In the end both the producer and I really enjoyed having Julia there. I had worried she might be bored. We are very used to working together and dealing quickly with stomach noises, mistakes and just sometimes “oh whoops I don’t think he was exactly like that 4 pages ago, can we just go back to the start of that para”? But in fact it was fun to have her see what we do, she was fascinated, and even more fun to read ‘The End’ and then all go off to the pub.

11 comments:

julia jones said...

Bored? I don't think so! I was gasping ans giggling ans lost in admiration. I know I've already written about my own feelings on this (for me) momentous occasion and I still experience fleeting surprise that Anna should have felt nervous of me but I did come to understand that what she does as a voice actress is a full scale performance for an unseen audience. A producer like Adam Helal is a known quantity, her supporter, mentor, cheer-leader. I introduced an unfamiliar and possibly critical element into the equation. No wonder this put her on edge. I hope it wasn't too long before my admiration and delight came pouring through the soundproof screen from the direction of my hidden corner

julia jones said...

(pity I haven't learned to type a little more accurately - sorry about the ans...)
I also wanted to say that I think Anna's post may have a wider importance now that the ACX system is bringing more of us into direct relationships with actors and narrators. We will need to be very careful to respect their separate expertise as our words find their way into their new medium.

madwippitt said...

Another fascinating behind the scenes glimpse of how much goes into creating an audio book. And they are so good these days! My mum relies on them as she can no longer see to read, and after helping her with picking titles she might like I've become an addict too, - and it means I can 'read' a book while doing boring stuff like washing up and making jam, and on long drives. Well, any drive actually: I have a cassette player in the car with a book permanently loaded into it!

Nick Green said...

Anna, I'm in awe of your skill, and that of others who do this incredibly underrated job. Hardly anyone thinks of how difficult it is. I consider myself a pretty good 'reader-alouder', but recently I tried to record just 30 seconds of narrative for a book trailer. And it took AGES to get it even halfway good. And that was me reading my own text, where I knew exactly what everything signified, and what to emphasise etc.

The thought of recording a whole book, in however many takes, just boggles my mind. I actually think it's impossible. Audiobooks are a physical impossibility. I don't believe in them.

Jan Needle said...

Fascinating stuff about a magnificent book. Thank you both.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Fascinating. This also helps to explain the producer/director's job - the convention in theatre, radio - all drama really - is that the writer speaks to the director and doesn't give direction to the actors unless asked. In practice, at the initial meeting or read-through of a play, and then once you're in the middle of rehearsals, this becomes much more flexible, but the convention remains that it's by invitation on both sides, and it's a good one. Somebody has to have the last word and that somebody is generally the director or producer who is on the side of the work itself. I've never sat in on a full reading - I would very much like to do it - but I've sat in on most of my full length radio and theatre plays and serials. You're often so glad of the director's role as mediator, and I suspect the actors feel the same. I know sometimes 'live' playwrights with opinions as opposed to the long dead can be a bit alarming for the cast! I can read aloud and have done my own short stories on radio but I think I would baulk at a whole novel. I don't have that kind of professional training, and it's very hard. I have huge respect and admiration for those who can do it.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Fascinating. This also helps to explain the producer/director's job - the convention in theatre, radio - all drama really - is that the writer speaks to the director and doesn't give direction to the actors unless asked. In practice, at the initial meeting or read-through of a play, and then once you're in the middle of rehearsals, this becomes much more flexible, but the convention remains that it's by invitation on both sides, and it's a good one. Somebody has to have the last word and that somebody is generally the director or producer who is on the side of the work itself. I've never sat in on a full reading - I would very much like to do it - but I've sat in on most of my full length radio and theatre plays and serials. You're often so glad of the director's role as mediator, and I suspect the actors feel the same. I know sometimes 'live' playwrights with opinions as opposed to the long dead can be a bit alarming for the cast! I can read aloud and have done my own short stories on radio but I think I would baulk at a whole novel. I don't have that kind of professional training, and it's very hard. I have huge respect and admiration for those who can do it.

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks Anna. It's wonderful to get these insights into how professionals prepare for (yes Nick) this 'incredibly underrated' job. I'm not sure it occurs to people that a long reading has to have the same intensity and attention to detail that we, as writers, bring to our editing. There's the feeling that 'it's only reading; anyone could do that'. But a bad delivery is worse than the most glaring typos or mis-spellings. I listened to a recording of Ivanhoe a while back in which the word 'tumult' was pronounced 3 different ways in the course of the narrative.

Nick Green said...

And we writers promise to remember, too, that if a character speaks with a thick Northumbrian burr, a Glaswegian growl, a Welsh lilt, a speech impediment, laryngitis, a fake French accent, or a permanent falsetto resulting from a helium addiction, then we will mention it when they are first introduced, and not on page 361.

Reb MacRath said...

Well done. I'm grateful for being discouraged from even attempting to read my own work.

Lydia Bennet said...

Thanks Anna, a fascinating glimpse of the process from the 'other side'! I'm hoping to get mine done via ACX but there are no Geordie/tyneside actors listed, sadly. It's obviously been a real collaboration between you and Julia and the result must be fab - shame we can't have a teeny sample on the blog! Yes I find it funny to imagine not mentioning where your character comes from until the end, unless that was the plot twist that explained everything.